Amanda Seyfried as Karen Smith, Mean Girls, 2004 Amanda Seyfried as Karen Smith, Mean Girls, 2004

You can’t fight one oppression by doubling down on another, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

In opposing any sort of oppression, it is important to remember that there is no natural unity among the oppressed. This is a truth that is easy to overlook, because it feels as if there should be. Suffering from any sort of oppression should enable us to empathise with others who are oppressed. On a human level this may be the case, but while racism and sexism are often seen as about interpersonal relations, oppression is in fact structural.

The roots of oppression do not lie in individuals’ opinions or behaviour but form part of the system of exploitation in which we live. Part of the role of oppression in the structure of society is to divide different groups from each other; to prevent us from acting in our common interests against our exploitation. This means therefore that the nature of oppression militates against a natural unity among different groups of oppressed people.

As a consequence, it is entirely possible therefore for campaigns for women’s rights to fight on a racist basis. In the late nineteenth century, for example, the National American Woman Suffrage Association argued for white women to have the vote on the basis that they were better educated than black men: ‘…in every state there are more women who can read and write than the whole number of illiterate male voters; more white women who can read and write than all negro voters; more American women who can read and write than all foreign voters.’[i] The point here was essentially that giving white women the vote would strengthen white supremacy; using a racist argument to advance women’s struggle, at least for white women.

Conversely, black feminists have also highlighted the pressure put on black women to put concerns about women’s oppression aside so that they are not undermining black men’s position in a racist society. As Ijeoma Oluo recounts in So You Want to Talk About Race, when she tweeted criticism of a black man accused of sexually assaulting several young, black women, she was accused of hating black men. ‘Not only did I hate black men, but I was on the side of the lynch mobs, on the side of the school-to-prison pipeline. I was the house Negro, the high-yellow bed wench who’d spread her legs for her white master (for real, these are words that have been sent to me).’[ii] This is important context when considering the recent increase in attention to the issue of white women and racism.

The Karen meme has been around for a few years, but exploded into prominence in 2020 in the context of the Black Lives Matter protests at the murder of George Floyd, so much so that it has been deemed one of the words of the year. A Karen is ‘a white woman weaponizing her privilege’, and famous examples included some appallingly racist behaviour. The most notorious was Amy Cooper, a white woman who called the police on a black man, Christian Cooper (no relation), saying he was threatening her, when in fact he had only asked her to put her dog on a lead.

‘White women’s tears’

The privilege that Amy Cooper was attempting to weaponize here was the idea that white women need to be protected from predatory black men, what is sometimes referred to as ‘white women’s tears.’ The example that is usually given of the power of white women’s tears is that of Emmett Till, the black 14-year-old who supposedly whistled at or flirted with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, and was murdered a few days later by a lynch mob which included Bryant’s husband. This is often cited in discussions of white women’s tears as an example of a white woman using white men against a black man.

The specific context of the Till case was the Jim Crow-era South, but the idea of white women’s vulnerability to predatory black men has long been central to racist ideology. The idea that black men are a sexual threat is arguably as old as racism itself. In 1644, for example, England saw a moral panic about African men ‘making sport’ with ‘Venetian lewdness’ with English women during revels at Lincoln’s Inn Fields.[iii] By 1785, James Tobin, complaining about ‘the great numbers of negroes at present in England’ was able to couple this with ‘the strange partiality shewn for them by the lower orders of women’ as an obvious accompanying evil, ‘which have long been complained of and call every day more loudly for enquiry and redress.’[iv] In the American South, the idea that respectable white women needed protecting from black men became a particularly important aspect of white supremacy, as shown for example by famous cases like that of the Scottsboro boys, nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. However, it was not restricted to the South, and it has not gone away.

The widespread use of the myth that grooming gangs and paedophilia are a specifically Asian problem by far-right groups like the DFLA is a recent example of this same trope. DFLA marches have featured placards claiming that child rape is an ‘epidemic’ that ‘comes from Asia’, denouncing ‘rape gangs and groomers’ and calling for ‘justice for women and girls.’ The point here was both to drum up support on the basis of protecting ‘our women’ and to make themselves appear simply as concerned citizens to those who wouldn’t otherwise want to be seen to consort with racists.

There was a similar dynamic at work in Germany in 2016, following the assault of a large number of women at New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne. The assaults were attributed (with, it turns out, very little justification) to refugees. The incident was used with depressing effectiveness by the Right in Germany to turn popular opinion away from support for people fleeing the conflict in Syria, with familiar claims of the necessity to protect white women from predatory Muslim men.[v]

Weaponising women’s oppression

While these recent examples certainly weaponize the idea of white women’s vulnerability, however, it’s not as clear that this is a privilege being deployed by white women themselves. Indeed, in the Cologne case, right-wing commentators in Germany and elsewhere lambasted the feminist movement for not calling for protection against black men. Young women who had been attacked on the night were ‘invited onto talk shows to answer questions about the sexual nature of the attacks and, what seemed more important, the ‘North African’ origin of the offenders as well as the absence of police officers or (white) German men who could have saved them from the attackers’.[vi] However, the attribution of blame specifically to refugees appears to have come from the Right, not from the women themselves. The discourse became one of the political correctness of feminists and the Left in general preventing them from naming the problem. This was, arguably, because feminists and the Left in general had failed to fall into line with the racist interpretation of what happened on New Year’s Eve.

Identifying the continuing power of the idea of white women’s vulnerability in racist ideas is not therefore the same as seeing individual white women as a motive force in the continuation and deployment of that idea. As has been pointed out, the far-right’s version of ‘protecting our women’ is the sort of protection you get from an abusive boyfriend when he punches another man for looking at you funny. It’s not about women and their interests at all. The issue that the racist men who use this trope have with the idea of black men assaulting white women isn’t that white women shouldn’t be assaulted, but that white men should have the monopoly on doing it.

An understanding of the working of white women’s tears which centres the racist intentions not just of specific women like Amy Cooper but of all white women is in danger of misinterpreting the complex intersection of sexism and racism. Even in the Till case, this was not as cut and dried as it is often supposed. It has been widely reported that Carolyn Bryant confessed on her death bed that the accusations that Till had grabbed or propositioned her were untrue. What is less widely acknowledged is that Carolyn Bryant did not set her abusive husband and his friends on to kill Till; Roy Bryant was told that Till had spoken to her by a friend of his and then very possibly beat his wife into confirming it.

This is not of course to wave away the real examples of white women using the police and authorities in a profoundly racist way, as Amy Cooper did. Nor is it to argue that campaigns against women’s oppression have never failed to take sufficient account of the oppression of black people, including black women, by the police. As Angela Davis points out, for example, the anti-rape campaigns of the 1970s too often slipped into calls for more policing precisely because the majority white feminists in the campaigns did not appreciate how those calls could be used to advance a racist agenda. In Berkeley, California, feminists’ calls for police protection against a serial rapist allowed the police to introduce attack dogs, which they had been trying to do since the 1960s to use against civil-rights protestors, but had never before been allowed to do.[vii]

It is demonstrable however that calling the police on entirely innocent black people is not a gendered practice. For every Christian Cooper, there is an Alex Nieto, the Hispanic man who was shot dead by San Francisco police in 2014 ‘because a series of white men saw him as a menacing intruder in the place he had spent his whole life.’ This is not specifically female behaviour; white men are clearly as likely as white women to perceive black men as a threat and call the police. White men are probably more likely than white women though to take matters into their hands and shoot black men whom they deem suspicious, as George Zimmerman did Trayvon Martin.

Calling the police in this way clearly springs from racism, whether it is conscious or unconscious, but in rightly identifying it as such, there is a danger that a focus on this issue can cast the larger issue of police violence as something that is simply beyond any power to change. It is correct to say that Amy Cooper must have been aware that in telling the police that Christian Cooper was threatening her, she might have got him killed, but making that the primary issue can present the tendency of police forces to kill black people as simply a reality that we have to take care not to trigger. Police violence is something that we have to oppose, not accommodate. It is taking the structural racism of society for granted to treat it as something that has only to be negotiated.

Interpretations of the Cooper case which centre on ‘white women’s tears’ do not necessarily advance that opposition, because they’re focusing on individual behaviour rather than the structural issue of police violence. Centring the problem of ‘Karens’ in the anti-racist struggle invites a focus on individuals and the extent of their personal racist views, rather than the structural racism of society and its institutions. It also invites the conclusion that white women, specifically, are the problem, rather than white men; a conclusion for which there is very little evidence. It is an odd place for any part of a movement galvanised by the murder of black man by white policemen to end up. And then, there’s the sexism.

Sexism and the ‘Karen’ meme

As ‘Karen’ became a popular term of abuse during 2020, it quickly morphed into an all-purpose insult for any middle-aged or older woman taking up metaphorical or literal space or standing up for herself. ‘Karens’ have a ‘can I speak to the manager’ haircut, apparently, and like to be in charge. If you want to not be a Karen, we’re told, you have to avoid complaining when you’re charged the wrong price in the supermarket or you don’t get what you ordered, not volunteer for responsibilities and make sure your ‘look’ is up to date. If this was advice to people in general, it could be passed off as general counsel to chill out and not sweat the small stuff (although a position that you have to dress fashionably to be allowed to speak up in public would always be objectionable). When it’s addressed explicitly to women, it is saying that women, and only women, have to sit down and shut up.

Women have, of course, been told to sit down and shut up for centuries. The advice that women can save themselves from ‘Karen-ness’ if they look sufficient young and attractive is also redolent of a familiar sexism. It is possible sometimes to interpret this as being particularly about working-class white women, a parallel to the ‘gammon’ insult levelled at older white men, although in other contexts, a Karen is seen as specifically middle-class. Whatever the class identification of the Karen meme, it is clear that it has introduced a new variant of the old sexist position that women should be quiet and compliant: that’s it’s somehow racism if they don’t. This is not what serious anti-racism struggle looks like. Indeed, it often appears that the anti-racist trappings of the Karen meme are really only there to give good, old-fashioned misogyny the cover of respectability.

When, for example, Tina Fey’s character in the film Soul uses the voice of a middle-aged white woman ‘because it annoys people’, it’s hard not to feel that the ‘white’ is there only because otherwise the sexism would be too blatant for Pixar to get away with. This is ultimately just the idea that women, particularly older women, are nags and scolds. While it is apparently aimed specifically at white, middle-aged women, an era in which this sort of depiction of any women is acceptable and amusing is not going to be good for black women or younger women either. That it is talking about white women is a cover, not something that will exempt black women from the sexist views this legitimises.

Racist oppression is part of the structure of capitalist society. As a result of that structure, white people are taught, implicitly if not explicitly, to be racist. Focusing on that individual racism to the exclusion of the racism of the system may result in token change but is not likely to address the underlying issue. Allowing anti-racism to be co-opted for women’s oppression is still less so. As Audre Lorde puts it, ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’[viii] In the same way that feminism that seeks to use racism to advance the cause of white women will not overcome women’s oppression, sexism is not an effective basis for fighting racist oppression. There is no natural unity of the oppressed, but that unity can be built if we fight for it. Dismissing women as ‘Karens’ is no way to do it.

[i] Angela Y Davis, Women, Race and Class, (Penguin Random House, 2019), p.102.

[ii] Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race, (Hachette, New York 2019), chapter 5.

[iii] Onyeka Nubia, England’s Other Countrymen. Black Tudor Society, (Zed Books, London 2019), p.162.

[iv] Quoted in Peter Fryer, Staying Power. The History of Black People in Britain, (Pluto Press, London 1984), p.162.

[v] Liz Fekete, Europe’s Fault Lines. Racism and the Rise of the Right, (Verso, London 2018), p.88-90.

[vi] Stefanie C Boulila and Christiane Carri, ‘On Cologne: Gender, migration and unacknowledged racisms in Germany’, European Journal of Women’s Studies, Vol.24 (3), (2017), pp.286-293, p.287.

[vii] Angela Y Davis, Women, Culture and Politics, (The Women’s Press, London 1984), p.49.

[viii] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, (Penguin Random House, 2019), p.105.

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.